As Republican donors sipped their wine and munched their salads in a hotel ballroom here Thursday evening, a clip of Marco Rubio launching his campaign on the promise that “yesterday is over” played on the television screens around the room.
Then the screens quickly cut to a message welcoming everyone to the Prescott Bush Awards Dinner, named for the late grandfather of Jeb Bush, Rubio’s likely presidential rival and a man seen by many as an implicit target of Rubio’s generation-centric rhetoric on the campaign trail.
In his 25-minute speech at the fundraising dinner for the state GOP named after the former Connecticut senator and Bush family icon, Rubio never once mentioned the Bush name. But the elephant in the room was not lost on the crowd.
“It is interesting because it’s Jeb Bush’s grandfather, and now it’s a guy running against him who also happens to be from Florida,” said Jay Sheehy of Stratford.
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Rubio had ventured into the heart of a state where the Bush family has deep roots. Still, the crowd was mostly welcoming, applauding at several points in his speech.
As he does often on the campaign trail, Rubio started by mentioning his parents, who came to the United States from Cuba. He called for a muscular national security strategy, slammed President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law and took a swipe at the Clintons for making millions from paid speeches, among other things.
Like former Florida governor Bush, whose father and brother are former presidents, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton is also seen as a target of Rubio’s “new generation” argument.
“The time has come for a new generation of leaders to guide us in our transition from the past we are so proud of to the exciting future that awaits our country,” Rubio said.
He also cited John F. Kennedy’s famous line from his inauguration speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
“The truth is that for far too long, leaders in both parties have asked for your vote on the promise of what our government can do for you,” Rubio said.
“But I’m asking for your vote on the promise of what together we can do for America.”
The Prescott Bush dinner is the state GOP’s largest annual event. Jeb Bush keynoted the dinner in 2014. Tickets for this year’s event ranged from $199 to $5,000.
As the donors gathered inside the hotel ballroom to hear Rubio speak, about three dozen demonstrators lined up outside to protest the Florida senator’s position on immigration.
“Up up with liberation, down down with deportation!” they chanted about 45 minutes before the dinner as a uniformed officer looked on and black cars pulled up to the hotel. Some held up signs labeling Rubio the “anti-immigrant.”
Rubio pushed a sweeping immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in 2013 before backing away from it.
He’s faced criticism from both conservative and liberal activists on immigration. Rubio now favors a piecemeal approach to reform that prioritizes border security and enforcing current laws.
Rubio, who campaigned Friday in Idaho, on Saturday will make his second appearance in Iowa since announcing his campaign in April.
Carol Way of Fairfield, Connecticut, said she has been impressed by both Bush and Rubio. But Rubio has to prove himself to her, she said, citing an infamous moment from his 2013 State of the Union response.
“I was one of the ones that watched the water bottle thing,” she said.